By Melinda Munson
My son hadn’t been on a plane for seven years. The only reason I put him on a flight in 2016 was because the drive from Las Vegas to Alaska would have been excruciating with his special needs, so we braved a commercial flight for the big move to the North. He was a perfect gentleman – hands to himself, minimal noise.
I don’t like to tempt fate, so this month when it was time for dental work in Anchorage and said son was now my height with sinewy, 19-year-old muscles, I asked Medicaid if we could take the ferry. Unsurprisingly, Medicaid was not flexible.
We were scheduled on a plane out of Skagway, a teeny tiny eight-seater.
My son has autism, was born with no eyeballs and functions at about a two-year-old level. He’s generally compliant and gentle, but occasionally, when something is bothering him, he might pinch or hit at the caretaker or bang the wall. He’s non-verbal, so this is his only way of expressing discomfort.
This behavior is disconcerting on the ground. In the air, it could be a disaster.
I called Skagway’s Alaska Seaplanes and explained the situation. Karen contacted headquarters and helped us make a plan. As long as he stayed buckled, which I expected he would, we would be safe. Banging on the plane would be annoying, but not life threatening. How could we get him prepared and calm?
We went to the airport and listened to a plane take off and land. He got used to Seaplanes employees Karen, Breanna and Jessica’s voices as they greeted, encouraged and coached him. They wheeled up the stairs and we practiced entering the plane crouched, so our heads didn’t hit the ceiling. We discovered he didn’t feel comfortable walking to his seat but butt-scooting worked just fine. We buckled him into a seat then practiced disembarking.
On the day of the journey, my anxiety was, pardon the pun, sky high. I was confident we were about to be placed on the No Fly List. Karen did what she could to help, keeping us updated about flight times, making sure we didn’t arrive at the airport any earlier than necessary.
“What’s the most distracting thing a customer has ever done on a plane?” I asked the pilot as we got ready to climb on.
“I had a lady once who warned me that when she got stressed, she would bark like a dog. Sure enough, when we hit some bumps, she barked like a dog.”
Maybe we would be okay. I’d never heard my son make animal noises.
All the women were there to help us board. We ducked, we scooted, we buckled, favorite blanket out, so far, success. I watched my son intently as the engines started – no reaction other than slight interest. The real test was in the air when the first bout of up and down began. I clutched my seat and heard my son … giggle.
Praise all that is holy, it worked. We had a delightful flight to Juneau and an equally smooth return trip. We were met with high-fives and praise from the Skagway team when we touched down.
While I don’t relish the idea of traveling with my son with severe disabilities, it’s a relief to know that it’s possible. It’s important to be reminded that, sometimes, the only thing holding him back is me.